Threat to Historic Tax Credits


External view of Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church

Perhaps we only appreciate what we have when it’s threatened.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recognizes this with their regular updates of “America’s 11 Most Threatened Buildings”. It is this sort of rallying that has made Preservationists famous.

That same effort needs to “come to the rescue” again.  Not for an antique building or neighborhood, but for the very mechanism that facilitates this restoration effort, Historic Tax Credits. In a nutshell, the Federal Government allows for 20% tax credits on restoration/rehabilitation costs on properties listed on their Register of Historic Places. These R/R costs routinely amount to 90% of all construction costs. They include everything except for site work, kitchen cabinets, and appliances. Most states have enacted similar historic tax credits and the combination of these credits (Federal and State) allows developers to maintain competitive rental rates in struggling markets. Below, I’ve highlighted five areas where this type of architectural salvation has proven itself again and again.

1. Community Revitalization: These historical industrial buildings are typically housed in disadvantaged cities, such as Lawrence, Fall River, New Bedford, and Bridgeport. These communities’ rental rates have real caps and these tax credits are the difference between a developer’s pro-forma working or falling short. In return, real capital that would otherwise seek other locals targets these less privileged communities. Historic and unique buildings which have lingered in vulnerable and dangerous vacant status are reborn and entire cities bounce back. Private equity plunges into communities that are desperately in need of the cash influx.

2. Architectural Integrity: The spaces that result from these re-born buildings are impossible to duplicate. Similarly chic and vibrant spaces from new construction rarely happen in these communities. High ceilings (9’ to 15’), exposed brick interiors, monumental windows, exposed timber posts & beams, hardwood floors, etc. are routine elements in these revitalized structures. Duplication is not possible and the resulting spaces are breathtaking. There is an element of the population that realtors are recognizing as “mill livers”. These upwardly mobile people hunt for restored mill buildings that have vacancies and become an important part of the communities they live in. They love the architectural spaces created by bringing new appliances & furnishings into authentic historic structures. This is not a fad. It’s been going strong for the last forty years.

3. Fire Suppression & Public Safety: In addition to these economic benefits, adaptive use brings these “fire traps” up to the fire code (think of Worcester Cold Storage). New, fully functional fire protection suppression systems and advanced technological alarm systems are introduced. Not only are fire-fighters spared, but also the homeless people that often take up residence in vacant buildings – and then light fires to warm themselves.

4. Structural Stabilization & Public Safety: Typically these buildings are rock-solid.  Provided they receive regular periodic attention, they will usually outlast new construction by decades (in fact “centuries” isn’t stretching it). However, if a building is in full neglect for 20, 30, or 40 years it will become a potential disaster.  Years of cycling through Winter-Summer, and freeze-thaw without monitoring causes accumulative effects. Historic Tax Credits save these buildings before they regress to this level of neglect.

5. Environmental Advantages: I once had a bumper sticker that proudly read “Historic Preservation: The Ultimate Form of Recycling”. This benefit is worthy of three sub-categories:

  • Historic Structures are more environmentally efficient than new buildings. The elements that remain, post-renovation, are typically masonry (often several feet thick), steel, and solid timber. The windows are routinely replaced with high-efficient insulated glass windows, and intelligent utilization of ceiling fans (to circulate cooling and heating). The oversized mill windows offer increased cooling benefits. Particularly so, since mills are generally on waterways (rivers, lakes, ponds). It is not uncommon for early-era ingenious heating and cooling methods. Examples of this include faux buttresses which actually serve to circulate air from the basement (cool) to the upper floors (warm). Canals under the mills operate engines and equipment than can power mechanical systems. These facilities can act as “mini-power plants” where they sell energy back to the grid. These buildings were designed to be “self-sufficient” and typically bring less energy burden to local utilities than their modern, equivalent-sized counterparts.
  • If a building is NOT re-used, there is, ultimately, only one outcome. The building is demolished and needs to be dispersed to dump sites. These dumps can ill afford to be filled with these hulking goliaths. A drive through and around Lawrence, New Bedford, Lowell, and Fall River will shock the senses if one imagines them demolished and buried.
  • Finally, to replicate the amount of existing built material that would be replaced is mind-numbing. Replaced entirely with NEW construction and NEW materials. Ultimately this results in the demolition, disposal, and replacement of hundreds of millions of square feet of buildings in Massachusetts alone.

These buildings already exist and they merely need the economic incentive, that is in place and well-functioning, to capitalize on them. In many regards that we hold to be important – economy, history, architecture, environment, and socio-economic benefits, Historic Tax Credits have proven themselves as a positive force.

Header Image:
Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, CA
Chris Jepsen (Permissions)